bulgari brooch emeralds rubies sapphires diamonds ngv exhibition getty

red carpet jewels | Hollywood divas | beautiful bling

Sexy and glamorous. Red carpet ready. Did someone say 'rescue fantasy'?

What do Hollywood stars and one of Italy’s most famous luxury brands have in common? As a new exhibition in Melbourne reveals, a knack for being bold, beautiful and bewitching.


There’s Naomi Watts on the red carpet at the Academy Awards … Scarlett Johansson at the Venice Film Festival … Jessica Alba at the premiere of her latest film … Olivia Wilde at the Golden Globes … Nicole Kidman at Cannes – all decked out in Bulgari jewels. Snap! Snap! Snap! These days jewellery is as much a star on the red carpet as the stars wearing it. But Bulgari’s tryst with Hollywood is nothing new. Luminaries of the big screen have long sought out Italy’s peerless gems.

bulgari snake bracelet watch-red and green enamel

“Snake” bracelet-watch in gold with red and green enamel and diamonds, circa 1965.

In September Italian Jewels: Bulgari Style opened at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) to shine a light on this glittering, intimate relationship, one that dates back to the 1930s, but which reached a peak during the dolce vita years of 1950s and ’60s, when movies such as Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita  made the Eternal City a magical place to be. Magazines devoted acres of space to that glittering world. Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Anita Ekberg and many others discovered the Bulgari shop in Via dei Condotti and engaged in passionate affairs with its jewels on and off the screen. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who fell in love while filming Cleopatra in Rome, celebrated their love with magnificent Bulgari creations.

Since then, says Lucia Boscaini, Bulgari’s brand and heritage curator, Bulgari creations have starred in more than 40 films, from Never So Few with Gina Lollobrigida in 1959 to The Visit with Ingrid Bergman in 1964, from Pret-â-Porter with Sophia Loren in 1994 to Casino with Sharon Stone in 1995, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol starring Tom Cruise in 2011.

bulgari evening clutch ngv exhibition melbourne 2016 gold with sapphire

Bulgari “Melone” evening bag in gold with sapphire, and blue silk tassel, cira 1980.

Who wears it best today? Says Boscaini, “Naomi Watts incarnates the mix of beauty, elegance and charisma the Bulgari jewels are made of. Another star who perfectly embodies the discerning Bulgari woman is Julianne Moore: she was the first woman to wear the emerald necklace [on display in Melbourne] that belonged to Elizabeth Taylor after Bulgari bought it back at auction.”

Australia, says Boscaini, who came to Melbourne for the gala dinner that launched the exhibitiion, along with Bulgari’s CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, has proved to be a very lively market for Bulgari. In Melbourne, the brand’s history is illustrated with a selection of amazing creations from the mid-1930s until today. Showcased: the use of colour, the practice of mounting ancient coins as a reinterpretation of a time-honoured tradition dating back to ancient Rome, the unconventional use of the cabochon cut, and the gorgeous sautoirs of the 1970s.

bulgari gold coin necklace ngv exhibition curb linked

Bulgari necklace in yellow gold and gold coins, ranging in date from the 16th to the 20th Centuries, circa 1973.

Says Boscaini, “A ‘young’ country like Australia has a deep interest in traditions of artisanal excellence, so the theme we chose for the exhibition allows us to show how the evolution of the Bulgari style always went hand-in-hand with the adoption of exquisite craftsmanship techniques.”

Back in Rome, Bulgari’s Heritage Collection today consists of more than 600 unique pieces, including jewels, watches and precious objects created from the end of the 19th century until today. It’s supported by more than 60,000 documents, vintage photographs and sketches.

Buying back magnificent pieces has been part of the company’s strategy since the 1990s and it recently secured a necklace of cabochon-cut emeralds dating back to 1928. Says Boscaini, “It was the decade when Giorgio and Costantino Bulgari, sons of the founder Sotirio Bulgari, started to outline an ‘Italian way’ to jewellery – less formal, more joyful and wearable. The cabochon cut to enhance the colour of the stones is today a Bulgari hallmark.

Pendant earrings with emerald amethysts, turquioise and diam9onds; 1965 Bulgari Heritage Collection

Pendant earrings in gold with emeralds, amethysts, turquoises and diamonds, Bulgari Heritage Collection, 1965.

“Another interesting piece we came across in the USA recently is a 1974 ‘Serpenti Tubogas’ bracelet-watch of which only a sketch was available. We were not sure whether it had ever been produced or sold. We dubbed the piece ‘Musical Note’ as the head of the snake was rendered with this particular shape. It illustrated the extent to which the maison has been eclectic in reinterpreting the snake motif, as of today one of the most recognisable of the Bulgari icons.”

Treasures turn up in the most unexpected places … a 1930s tiara in the Museum of Qatar; a garland-style necklace in platinum with diamonds around the neck of Princess Olimpia Torlonia at a gala ball, which had only ever appeared in a 1960s advertising campaign; silver ornaments made by Sotirio Bulgari, discovered in a vault inside the flagship store.

On Lucia Boscaini’s wishlist are two masterpiece necklaces from the 1970s that reinterpret the lotus flower motif and were inspired by the first exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun. “One combines cabochon sapphires, black onyx and salmon pink coral highlighted with diamonds. The second variation mounts turquoises, emeralds and amethysts in a pavé-set diamond ground.” She also has her eye on a necklace and a bracelet, in the possession of a Spanish noblewoman, which epitomise Bulgari’s taste for colour and sumptuous volumes.

Buying back Elizabeth Taylor’s pieces at auction in 2011 was one of the biggest challenges to date, she reveals. “They were really thrilling moments, as we had to meet budget constraints while also purchasing the most representative pieces of her predilection for Bulgari. In the end, we are very satisfied, and today we can display the magnificent jewels for you to admire in Melbourne.”

Jewellers sell dreams – and dreams need stories with strong characters, which is why Taylor remains such an icon. “Elizabeth Taylor represented an era,” Mauro Di Roberto, head of Bulgari’s jewellery business unit, told the glittering assembly of guests at the launch of the Diva Collection in Portofino in 2013. “She was a rare woman in the sense that she was very strong, knew exactly what she wanted.”

She had much to play with. The Bulgari family overturned the longstanding hierarchy of gemstones in quality jewellery: mixing up the precious and the semiprecious; taking risks with colours; the love of a cabochon gem, raised like a cupola; the smooth round finishes that eschew the spiky claw; the thick gold chain of filed curb linking known as gourmette, an underside as perfect as the upper side.

bulgari-cigarette-case-with-gold-coins-ngv-exhibition 2016

Cigarette case in gold with gold coins of the Kingdom of Sardinia, 1939.

“The way Elizabeth Taylor wore jewellery was not traditional, not formal,” said Di Roberto. “She had a way of wearing jewellery as if it were part of her. It reflected her lifestyle and personality, and it complemented what she was wearing. You can see how safe and strong she felt in wearing whatever she put on.”

Despite owning pieces of jewellery that today would have their own Facebook page, Taylor never thought of her jewels as trophies. In Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, she  wrote: “I’m here to take care of them and to love them.” She hoped that when she died and they went to auction, whoever bought them would give them a good home.

Italian Jewels: Bulgari Style is at the National Gallery of Victoria until January 17, 2017;  ngv.vic.gov.au.

[This feature by Susan Skelly first appeared in Crystal magazine for Crown Resorts, September – November, 2016]


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab. susan@excessallareas.com.au

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.